A creation that works together

Sometimes organisms make things easy for each other

‘[Fungi] are often completely essential to the trees they form a relationship with, and can even pass nutrients from one plant to another. This is yet another example of how the ‘red in tooth and claw’ picture of the living world is only one side of the story. Cooperation is every bit as important as competition. It is thought that fungi helped plants to transition onto land, and that in fact nearly every major transition in the evolution of living things involved a new type of cooperation. In other words, in the struggle for survival, a bit of snuggling is often needed.

Quoted from Ruth Bancewicz’s Science and faith blog — always worth a read.

Hopefully not the apocalypse

Summarizing the environmental work to do

Thomas L Friedman’s stimulating book ‘Thank you for being late’ reminds us that the Holocene era, an era of unusual stability, has lasted just the last 11,500 years or roughly the same time we’ve had farms and civilisation.

Can we ourselves disturb this happy Holocene stability? It seems we can. Friedman summarizes eight different ways we may be inducing planetary organ failure, based on work by Rockstrom, Steffen and others in Science on Feb 13 2015:

  • Climate church – already reached Holocene-rocking levels (they claim)
  • Loss of biodiversity -ditto
  • Deforestation – ditto

Then he lists four more that his source considers within safe levels, but only just:

  • Ocean acidification
  • Freshwater use
  • Atmospheric aerosol loading (diesel particulates and whatnot)
  • Introduction of novel entities (plastics, nuclear waste etc)

Finally one example of where we did breach safe levels but are now retreating back to safety: stratospheric ozone.

A useful summary, then, of the big main environmental issues. Human civilisation has only thrived in the Holocene bubble. Will we pop it, a DIY apocalypse?  Or will we seek God for our ‘daily bread’ and manage to preserve our species and our planet for further adventures?

They do things differently there

Muscular theology

Lovely quote from Simon Sebag Montefiere in his endlessly interesting book Jerusalem – the biography.

‘Dyophysites fought their Monophysite protagonists in the imperial palaces and in the back streets of Jerusalem and Constantinople with all the violence and hatred of christological football hooligans’ (p189).

Jerusalem: The Biography

by Simon Sebag Montefiore [Phoenix]
Price: £9.49 - - -

Religion in Europe – a public utility

They may not turn up, but that’s not the full story

Just read a fascinating interview about faith in Europe. It’s a little old now (2005) but one of those pieces that makes lights go on in your head. It was with Grace Davie, an Exeter University professor, the sociologist who popularized the term ‘believing without belonging.’

July 23 - Prague - Cathedral & Castle (10)A few highlights:

European exceptionalism

‘The patterns of religion in Europe are not a global prototype. They are, in fact, an exceptional case. European self-understanding is premised on the idea that modernization implies secularization. Europeans think that what Europe does today, everyone else will do tomorrow; they don’t find it easy to grasp that the European case is, perhaps, sui generis.’

Contracting out your faith

Religion is contracted out. Regular church attendance is small and declining. But trying asking a wider question – who do I want to take care of my funeral? A much higher percentage expect something of the church. ‘The historic churches are public utilities, and you expect public utilities to be there when you need them.’

‘Religion [is] performed by an active minority — that’s the belongers — but on behalf of a much larger number — that’s the wider population, who implicitly, not only understand but quite clearly approve of what the minority is doing. In other words, there is a relationship between the nominal member and the active member.’

‘Church leaders and churchgoers not only perform ritual on behalf of others, they also believe on behalf of others.’

This explains why newspapers write so much about what bishops believe and what the Church of England synod is up to. They are doing exactly what they also do with sport or politics — telling the crowds of semi-committed non-payers what the committed minority are getting up to.

Among further evidence for contracted-out religion she notes what happens in tragedies (people expect the churches to be open); and the resentment people feel about a parish church being closed (people feel it belongs to them).

Two models of church

Statistics can be misleading because change is happening within denominations as well as in newer denominations. This can hide working models (it does so in the Church of England). The two working models are:

  1. The evangelical, often charismatic church. ‘In every small town and city you will find a relatively successful evangelical church.’ The most successful include a charismatic, experiential element.
  2. The cathedral or city-centre church. ‘You can just go there, you can sit behind your pillar, nobody bothers you, but while you’re there, you experience traditional liturgy — very predictable liturgy, which is clearly important (everybody knows what’s going to happen). You have world-class music, sublime architecture and very good preaching. It’s a very high standard. If you look at cathedrals, they are filling at every level. They are filling with regular members, less regular members, pilgrims and tourists.’

These lead to two models of Christian involvement among Europeans: the convert (the one who joins the evangelical church) and the pilgrim or seeker. ‘Old-fashioned Biblicism, as well as liberal Protestantism, is in trouble … The purely cognitive does not seem to appeal to today’s population. And although you have two completely different patterns, in fact they have a common element. It’s not so much what you learn when you get there; it’s the taking part that is important. It’s the fact that you’re lifted out of yourself that counts. And the big one-off occasions — candlelit carol service or evangelical conventions — are what do the trick’. It’s a mistake to ‘divide Europe into people who practice [the weekly attenders] and people who don’t, because most people are somewhere in the middle.’

Two eyes are better than one (1)

Science and theology both explore different slices of truth. Putting them together yields a more nutritious sandwich.

heart is in my hands

Put them together for a surprising result

We’re still looking out over the ocean of truth, all undiscovered around us. But hand in hand, science and theology help humans see better. Here are some ways science can prod theology out of stagnation and torpor (which can be true when people endlessly recycle old theological models instead of thinking) and make it (or arguably keep it), fit, lean, hungry and relevant.

  1. Origins. Scientific discoveries about the origin of the universe oblige us to re-read and re-think the first 10 chapters or so of Genesis. These Biblical accounts of the origin of language, or of human families, of history and pre-history, contradict the story told by those who’ve dug up the past and thought about it. The best theology does not fear this, but looks to the early chapters of Genesis to do something else, to teach theology through story, to reveal ‘who we are and what we are to do’.
  2. Creation by delegation. Evolutionary theory points to a mustard-seed Creator, who sets up small things brimming with potential and superintends their development through a billion creative steps. This was so of life, of the Universe, of the Kingdom of God and of everything. This is fantastic. For one thing, it gives significance and meaning to every single human action – each of our acts can be preparatory for the Kingdom of God. For another, it makes us ask, what is the connection between human development and New Creation? I have no idea, but it is fun to explore.
  3. The people history never saw. Ancient anthropology tell us most humans died long before Jesus lived or even Abraham was born. They have not known the story we have all heard — told again this Christmas. What does this mean? What does it say about the nearness, or otherwise, of God to those who have not known the Word incarnate? This is a big question, one I puzzle over.
  4. What is the Universe? The Bible is a universal book. But back in the the Bible’s day, the visible Universe was the Earth plus fairy lights. What part of the Christian revelation refers to the world, and which to the entire cosmos? What does ”the end of the world’ mean? Astronomy predicts this (for earth) just as much as the Bible does (but perhaps on a different scale); what happens to the rest of the cosmos?
  5. And on…
  6. For more stuff like this:

The end of a claustrophobic life

Midlife: A Philosophical Guide
I read a wonderful description of middle-age angst the other day, written by a 41-year-old. He called it:

‘a disconcerting mixture of nostalgia, regret, claustrophobia, emptiness and fear.’ 1.

The best thing was remembering feeling exactly that–perhaps when I was in my forties too– but not now feeling it anymore.

What changed?

For me it was a years of ill-health and disappointment. My heart stopped in 2011, though happily they managed to re-start and fix it. Then in 2013 I spent a month in a coma and the following couple of years in and out of wheelchairs.

At work, from 2008 onwards  I had ten years of painful transition from a publishing contract to a self-publishing life. 2 I sell fewer books but now I write and teach things that refresh and renew my spirit (occasionally, they help other people too).

In that desert time I think I found three things that really mattered: worship, relationships, and vocation.  Add in a couple of others (recovered health, financial security, kids doing great) and I have been able to make the following Bible text my screensaver:

In my distress I cried out to the Lord

The Lord answered me and put me in a wide open place

Worship, relationship, vocation; not claustrophobia, a wide open space.

It feels like a discovery.

When physicists get out the duct tape

Mathematical fumblings behind the campus bikeshed

IMG_3071The great physicist Roger Penrose has written:

‘…The standard model is clearly not the “ultimate answer”, with regard to particle physics, because it contains many unexplained features and “ragged edges”, despite its undoubted success. It involves about 17 unexplained parameters that simply need to be taken from observation.’ 1

Then he talks about quantum field theory and the frequent need to ‘renormalize’ equations. ‘Renormalizing’ means, for example, when the maths yields an infinite negative mass or an infinite negative charge, arbitrarily to add infinite mass or infinite charge so that the problem goes away and you get values that meet experiments. Or to put it another way, the ‘twin criteria of agreement with observation’ and ‘mathematical consistency’ are ‘incompletely fufilled’ (p665) and ‘there is no accepted way of obtaining finite answers without such an “infinite rescaling” procedure applied not necessarily only to charge, or to mass, but to other quantities also’ (p678).

Physicists, possibly, can get away with much in the murky cellars of mathematics because the rest of us are ill-equipped to go down and supervise.

“What are you doing down there?’ we call.

‘Oh, I’m just renormalizing,’ they reply, amid the clink of bottles.

Those of us who are not unsupervised quantum physicists still live under tiresome restrictions: at GCSE, we can’t arbitrarily add numbers to make our equations come out right. In the bank, we find opposition to us renormalizing our overdrafts by suggesing the bank adds an infinite amount of positive-but-theoretical money. So tiresome!

Yet this is not to throw stones at physicists, who in my view have by their mathematical fluency made much more progress on paradoxical issues than (say) theologians (who are usually just restricted to human languages).

But it is to say that physics isn’t quite the purring engine, not quite the lonely pinnacle of rarefied human thought, that we might like to think.

And so, for example, when New Atheists claim that Quantum Field Theory and its like does away with the need for a Creator, since everything just pops spontaneously out of a quantum vacuum, we should remember these arguments are held together, at a fundamental level, by duct tape.

Quotes are from Roger Penrose’s magnificent The Road to Reality, which has sadly reminded me what three years of undergraduate study proved: in physics, I can hum the tunes but can’t do the lyrics.

‘Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens’ – discuss

There must be more than this

Our beautiful, warless world, where I could be entranced by the purest mathematics for all eternity.

Any human who arrive here, gazing at our violet landscapes, might well have believed they have entered Heaven.

But what happened in Heaven?

‘What did you do there?’

After a while, didn’t you crave flaws? Love and lust and misunderstandings, and maybe even a little violence to lighten things up? Didn’t light need shade? Didn’t it?’ Matt Haig, The Humans p174

I like that.

I found Matt Haig’s happy book The Humans (about an alien who takes the body of a maths lecturer to stop human progress)  irresistable. Not least because like some other books I know, namely my

Paradise - a divine comedy (Jamie's Myth Book 1)
own, it is set in Cambridge and also in some complete other world.

He uses the alien-being-human trope to explore fun, slanted views on human life, well worth a read. Here’s another:

They have no way of coming to terms with what are, biologically, the two most important things that happen to them –procreation and death … They have lived on this planet for over a hundred thousand generations and yet they still have no idea about who they really are or how they should really live. (p248)

The Humans

by Matt Haig [Canongate Books Ltd]
Price: £6.47 - - -

The need to unknow

Uncertainty and scepticism strengthen faith

The trouble with many people today is that they have not found a God big enough for modern needs‘.

Bible paraphraser J B Philips wrote this in 1961. ‘While their experience of life has grown in a score of directions, and their mental horizons have been expanded to the point of bewilderment by world events and by scientific discoveries, their ideas of God have remained largely static.

He went on to describe the dangers of not letting your understanding of God grow along with everything else:

It is obviously impossible for an adult to worship the conception of God that exists in the mind of a child of Sunday School age, unless he is prepared to deny his own experience of life. If, by great effort of will, he does this, he will always be secretly afraid lest some new truth may expose the juvenility of his faith. And it will always be by such an effort that he either worships or serves a God who is really too small to command his adult loyalty and cooperation.

(J B Philips Your God is Too Small, (Collier/Macmillan 1961) p 7).

Your God is too small

by J. B Phillips [The Epworth Press]
Price: £3.83 - - -

I found these references to J B Phillips in David Bradstreet and Steve Rabey’s enjoyable astronomical tour Star Struck (Zondervan 2016), p261.

Star Struck

by Dr. David Bradstreet and Steve Rabey [Zondervan]
Price: £9.41 - - -

Further inconvenient truth

The missionary roots of liberal democracy

Panomara of Central Accra
Accra, Ghana

The most important ingredient in a successful 21st century democracy? Nineteenth century Protestant missionaries.

Sociology scholar Robert Woodberry wrote this:

​’Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.’

This remains true (on Woodberry’s analysis) after correcting for every other explanation you can think of, and he’s done work too to look at whether causation is involved (the one caused the other) or merely correlation.

Robert Woodberry is one of the depressingly-increasing numbers of people of whom I can say, ‘I knew his father’. (Prof Dudley Woodberry at Fuller Seminary taught me Islamics).

Woodberry fils has devoted years to careful data-gathering and analysis and has established a strong correlation between ‘conversionary’ Protestant missionaries and nations’ subsequent trajectories in literacy, poverty, women’s rights, and social capital.

Woodberry’s landmark paper, ‘The missionary roots of liberal democracy’ has won awards and intrigued sceptics:

“[Woodberry] presents a grand and quite ambitious theory of how conversionary Protestants’ contributed to building democratic societies,” says Philip Jenkins, distinguished professor of history at Baylor University. “Try as I might to pick holes in it, the theory holds up. [It has] major implications for the global study of Christianity.”

It’s fascinating. Compare Ghana with next-door Togo; Canada with Argentina; and Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary with Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia. You have to read the paper for all the nuances. But still.

  • These quotes are all taken from Andrea Palpant Dilley’s cover story in Christianity Today, January 8 2014. Robert Woodberry has recently made the paper free as a pdf download and you find it here. For a less-gushy perspective on Woodberry see this thoughtful piece.